Rams see bright future after turnaround season ends early
By GREG BEACHAM
THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (AP) The Los Angeles Rams exceeded every expectation and stunned the NFL during their surge to an 11-win season and the NFC West title.
That didn't make the Rams' opening-round playoff loss to Atlanta any easier to bear - at least not while it's still fresh for the players and coaches who led the turnaround to get there.
"It's a good start, a great start," receiver Robert Woods said Sunday. "But we've got to keep building."
The Rams' comeback season is over after a 26-13 loss to the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons on Saturday night. The players still seemed stunned by the abrupt conclusion to a remarkable turnaround season as they cleaned out their lockers at the team's training complex.
"It's hard, because we had a good thing going," guard Jamon Brown said. "For it to come to a halt and stop like it did, it's tough. But we learned that we have the guys to do it. It was a matter of having the scheme, having the right coaches, having the right attitude. We're going to get better."
After 13 consecutive non-winning seasons and 12 straight non-playoff seasons, the Rams (11-6) suddenly had it all under 31-year-old Sean McVay, who became the youngest head coach in league history to reach the playoffs. Los Angeles improved by seven wins on last season's performance while moving from 32nd in the NFL in scoring in 2016 to first this season, more than doubling last season's point production.
Although McVay said he isn't sure exactly what to do this week, he hopes his players will understand they're only as good as what happens next year. After outstanding seasons from Todd Gurley, Jared Goff and Aaron Donald, the Rams have pieces in place to do this again and again, McVay believes.
"I think this organization is going in the right direction," McVay said. "I think we've got a good foundation in place that we can build on, but by no means does that mean that you win games automatically next year. While we did win some games this year, you still have to earn everything."
The Rams have several decisions to make in the offseason on the fates of free-agent players including cornerback Trumaine Johnson, receiver Sammy Watkins and linebacker Connor Barwin. But after a season that revitalized a franchise and a fan base, McVay and the Rams appear to be on the way up.
Here are more things to watch as the Rams move on:
TRU STORY: Six Rams starters will be unrestricted free agents, including three defensive backs: Johnson, Lamarcus Joyner and Nickell Robey-Coleman. Johnson played the last two seasons under the franchise tag, but is likely to get a big contract this offseason as an elite cover cornerback. Los Angeles must navigate potential upheaval in the secondary, perhaps by drafting a cornerback or safety, if it hopes to return with another strong defense.
PAY THE MAN: Donald is entering the final year of his rookie contract, and the Rams seem unlikely to force their All-Pro defensive lineman into another holdout - except that also seemed unlikely this season, when Donald skipped the entirety of training camp and didn't play in the first regular-season game. Donald is the Rams' defensive cornerstone, and getting a record-setting deal done will be high on general manager Les Snead's to-do list, just as it was last year.
SAMMY'S FUTURE: Watkins occasionally clicked with Goff after arriving during the preseason in a trade with Buffalo, catching 39 passes for 593 yards and eight touchdowns. But Goff clearly had more familiarity with Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp, and it showed. Watkins is a free agent, but could be kept in LA with the franchise tag or the transition tag. Watkins said he would love to stay with the Rams, but added: "I just know it's a business. Since I got traded from the Bills, it's like anything can happen. I didn't see that coming. I think I played pretty hard this year, and I can't wait to see what my future holds, here or anywhere else."
NEW QBs COACH?: McVay all but confirmed that quarterbacks coach Greg Olson is talking about moving to Oakland to work for new coach Jon Gruden, who happens to be McVay's mentor. If Olson leaves, Goff will have his third position coach in three seasons. McVay encourages his assistants to move up in the coaching world, but he also hopes to keep the rest of his staff intact, saying he anticipates no changes other than the possible departure of Olson.
UNSWEET HOME: The Rams' playoff loss was their fifth in eight games this season at the Coliseum, where the franchise is just 4-11 since returning home from St. Louis in 2016. The Rams also lost their final three home games this year despite increasingly raucous crowds while their improved play grabbed the attention of LA's long-abandoned football fans. Linebacker Alec Ogletree believes the Rams had a strong us-against-the-world vibe while going 8-1 away from the Coliseum this season, but nobody is quite sure how to replicate it. With two seasons left in the Coliseum before the opening of their lavish Inglewood palace, McVay said the Rams must figure out how to play better at home.
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Updated January 7, 2018